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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 19:14 GMT 20:14 UK

World: Africa

Obituary: Joshua Nkomo

Nkomo meets then UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1965

Joshua Nkomo, who died on Thursday aged 82, was the first modern nationalist leader in white-ruled Rhodesia.

He was a giant, both politically and physically, who dominated the Zimbabwean stage for half a century.

Known affectionately as Umdala Wethu - our old man - his life was marked by the struggle for independence and the introduction of majority rule.

But it was a career defined first by friendship and then by rivalry with Zimbabwe's first and only black president so far, Robert Mugabe.

Nationalist roots

Born to black missionary teachers in Matabeleland in 1918, he saved up for his education in South Africa, where he met Nelson Mandela and other regional nationalist leaders.

He returned to Bulawayo in 1948 and became a trade unionist campaigning for better pay and conditions for black railway workers.

The leader of a number of organisations during the 1950s and 1960s - which were all banned by the British colonial authorities - Joshua Nkomo founded the movement which became most associated with his name, Zapu, in 1962.

But the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union was also banned immediately.

Birth of rivalry

Mr Nkomo came from Zimbabwe's Ndebele minority, and a year after Zapu's foundation there was a split with the nation's Shona majority under the leadership of Nkomo's former lieutenant, Robert Mugabe.

[ image: With Robert Mugabe at Lancaster House, 1979]
With Robert Mugabe at Lancaster House, 1979
Between 1964 and 1974, both rivals were detained for long periods by the Rhodesian government of Ian Smith, who declared independence unilaterally from Britain in 1965.

On his release, Mr Nkomo went to Zambia, from where he fought for Zimbabwean independence at the head of Zapu and its Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army, which was backed by the Soviet Union.

The rivalry between the Zapu and Zanu leaders continued throughout the war, with Mr Mugabe receiving help from Beijing.

Election disappointment

The struggle for majority rule ended with the Lancaster House accord, paving the way for elections in 1980.

It was then that Joshua Nkomo's cherished ambition of becoming Zimbabwe's first black president was dashed.

His party trailed Mugabe's by 57-20 seats in the new 100-seat parliament.

Mr Nkomo made no secret of his bitterness at the defeat.

He joined the first Mugabe coalition in the powerful Home Affairs ministry, but there was no harmony.

In 1982 Zapu was accused of plotting a coup and Nkomo was fired, his passport taken away, and he was restricted to Bulawayo.

Mistrust between the two sides escalated, leading to a near civil war in the first half of the 1980s.

Thousands of civilians in Matabeleland were killed by government forces, including a North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.


It was not until 1987 that the differences were patched up, with Mr Nkomo becoming one of two vice-presidents.

Zimbabwe became a one-party state, with Mr Mugabe's organisation effectively swallowing up the much smaller Zapu.

As vice-president, Mr Nkomo's career followed a steady decline.

Many in Matabeleland saw him as having sold out, and his failing health began to have an influence.

But he kept up his attacks on whites for not becoming assimilated as "true Zimbabweans", while his conservative attitudes were ill-suited to discourse with women seeking equality in a traditional African society.

In recent years, Mr Nkomo's deteriorating health led to mounting speculation about his possible successor, with fears of heightened ethnic tension between the Ndebele and the Shona.

It may have been partly with this in mind that Mr Mugabe paid such a generous tribute to his old rival on Thursday, describing him as a great man, a comrade and a compatriot.

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